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Thursday, 13 September 2018
Page: 6380

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (15:56): Labor opposes this motion to disallow the Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements—classes of persons) Instrument 2018 (No. 1). This instrument underpins the expansion of the ParentsNext program, a pre-employment initiative which aims to help parents with children under the age of six to plan and prepare for future study or employment as their children approach school age.

From the outset, it's important to state that Labor understands and acknowledges the Greens' concerns and their motivation for bringing forward this disallowance motion. We also hold concerns about the expansion, but these concerns are outweighed by what we see as the potential benefits of the program for parents, predominantly young women, seeking to enter or re-enter the work force. If the regulation is disallowed and the preceding regulation is re-enlivened, many of the potential benefits of this program for participating families will be lost. These benefits include targeted and practical assistance to complete or add qualifications to become employment ready. Importantly, the program also includes early intervention assistance, such as identifying education and employment goals, developing pathways to achieve those goals and linking participants to activities and services in their local communities. For those parents in the intensive stream being delivered in 30 locations, including areas with a high proportion of Indigenous parents, there are additional supports through a participation fund, wage subsidies for potential employers and relocation assistance. The program is expected to cover around 68,000 people, of whom around 10,000 are Indigenous. More than 95 per cent of those helped are expected to be women.

The ParentsNext program has only been running in an expanded form since the beginning of July, and the rollout is happening over time. Labor are of the view that, while we cannot yet fully appraise the benefits that this program may be delivering, we are wary of taking away the support of pre-employment programs that seek to invest $263 million in parents, including Indigenous parents. The positive aspects of this program would be lost to the majority of those people if the expansion were to be shut down, with only the 10 original trial sites remaining. It would also be frustrating for those parents who have taken the step of getting involved to find that their time has been wasted and to have this program's supports taken away from them.

We oppose this motion today because it cannot, as a matter of practicality, completely resolve the concerns that are held in relation to compliance obligations. If the motion passes, there will still be many people, predominantly women, subject to the compliance obligations, and disallowing the regulation is likely to cause significant disruption, waste and job losses. The rollout has commenced on this $263 million program expansion. Fifty-eight providers have already been contracted, with contracts running from 2018 to 2021. Forty-seven of those providers are not-for-profits and five are Indigenous organisations. If the contracts are now torn up, it will likely involve payment of notice periods, payment of other costs and redundancies for providers' staff. Of course, the government should not have awarded contracts and started the rollout before this regulation had passed the disallowance period, but this failure of basic governance on behalf of the coalition should not be visited upon providers, their staff and, most importantly, the vulnerable people who are looking to enter or return to the workforce which this program is seeking to help.

As I have previously stated, we have some concerns about the expansion as designed by the Liberal government. Labor have taken this opportunity to negotiate with the government to improve some of the early difficulties observed in relation to the program. Through our advocacy and discussions with crossbenchers and the government, we have identified key concerns and secured commitments for modifications. We acknowledge the government's willingness to negotiate on these matters.

Some of the improvements that have been obtained through our negotiations include the government giving Labor an undertaking that they will update the ParentsNext program guidelines to ensure that parents who are engaging in study or appropriate training will be considered compliant with activity requirements. This improvement, secured by Labor, will make it clear that parents who engage in these activities will only need to participate in a quarterly catch-up with their provider to confirm their educational status and discuss whether they require any additional support. This assessment will also have added flexibility, including that it may be conducted by phone to minimise the impact on the participant. Likewise, the government have committed to investigate what can be done to assist parents who are at risk of having their payments suspended, including making sure that appointments aren't scheduled in close proximity to payment dates. The government have also given assurances that they will investigate the steps that the providers are taking to enter into cooperative partnerships with Indigenous organisations and to improve written communication in letters, emails and text messages. Communications will now reinforce to participants that they are able to bring their children to the appointments and that these environments are family-friendly.

We believe these immediate improvements will make the program more focused on supporting parents and defray some of the problems which some parents have faced in relation to compliance. We are not saying that these changes will make the program or its expansion perfect or without difficulty. Labor acknowledge the concern of stakeholders in relation to the compliance aspects of this expansion. Generally, stakeholders support the existence of a pre-employment program for parents seeking to enter or return to the workforce, but they hold concerns about the compliance aspects of this program as presently designed. We hear those concerns and we will continue to consult stakeholders, such as the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, ACOSS and others, about this program. We look forward to receiving further feedback as to how this program might be improved, with a view to considering what further action we could take if we form government.